Let’s skip the editor’s-column banalities this month. Do you really care about the first time I heard Stanley Clarke? Instead, I’d like to use this space to cover a jazz doing you need to know about: New Vocabulary (System Dialing), a recent release featuring Ornette Coleman that is very weird yet very worthwhile, often at once. Why weird? That argument began even before the CD hit the stereo.
In an age when every jazz release, from grades A to Z, is anticipated by no fewer than 40 email blasts from the artist and his or her publicist, I learned about New Vocabulary via good old-fashioned word of mouth. I sifted through our stacks of promo discs to make sure we received a copy, and found it mistakenly stashed in the overflowing bin designated for up-and-comers. The headliner’s name doesn’t appear on the album cover, only on the back, atop trumpeter Jordan McLean, drummer Amir Ziv and guest pianist Adam Holzman-experienced players with pages of credits, but still personnel worthy of a furrowed brow.
As McLean and Ziv have told it, in 2008 Coleman attended a performance of the musical Fela!, where McLean was associate music director and trumpeter. Impressed, the free-jazz pioneer invited McLean to his New York home to jam. A creative rapport developed and expanded to include McLean’s pals, and in July 2009 it yielded these 42 minutes of music divided into 12 tracks.
So how is New Vocabulary? Tedious, then alluring, then immersive. If you’re a member of Cult Ornette, you’ll find much of what you love about the alto saxophonist front and center throughout the program: the bittersweet tone you could recognize underwater; the flitting, blues-soaked phrasing that is simultaneously aloof and earthy; the familiar licks and motifs that come off as encores and not clichés. What sets this recording apart are the outré soundscapes that Coleman’s self-contained playing is juxtaposed with, not unlike a warm memory that interrupts a nightmare. Although everyone is improvising inside concepts discussed beforehand, even for a Coleman ensemble this band pushes aesthetic boundaries. McLean meanders, encircles, bleats and drones; Ziv mostly provides skittering texture but also works into austere grooves; Holzman attacks the keys free or digresses into minimalistic patterns. The production, also by McLean and Ziv, reflects the eerie open space of dub and ambient music. Through it all there’s Ornette, and in the midst of such well-executed bleakness, his sound has rarely been so primed for savoring.